Christmas Comes Early for 700 Families of Fallen U.S. Military Heroes at Disney World

walk on main street at disney world
Credit: The Gary Sinise Foundation

Christmas has come early this year for 700 families of fallen military service men and women, thanks to the Snowball Express event hosted by The Gary Sinise Foundation.

RELATED: These Make-A-Wish Recipients Now Grant Wishes for Others at Disney World

woman and child at magic kingdom

Credit: The Gary Sinise Foundation

In the early 1990s, actor Gary Sinise played a film role that would earn him nominations for an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, and the Screen Actors Guild Award. In Forrest Gump, starring Tom Hanks as the title character, Sinise plays Lieutenant Dan Taylor, Gump’s platoon leader during the Vietnam War in 1967.

5 Things We Didn't Know About Lt. Dan from 'Forrest Gump' | War History Online

Gary Sinise and Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump” (1994)/Credit: Paramount Pictures

But years after the film was released, Sinise’s Lieutenant Dan persona seemed to have taken on a life of its own as, by his own admission, the character “formed an enduring connection with service members throughout the military community and as he worked on behalf of the Disabled American Veterans organization.”

Sinise had been an advocate for military service people for years before his role in Forrest Gump, but after embracing the role of Lieutenant Dan, his dedication to that advocacy strengthened, and in 2011, Sinise started the Gary Sinise Foundation, a non-profit organization that exists to honor our nation’s defenders, veterans, first responders, their families, and those in need.”

Gary Sinise Foundation, 2021 Citizen Honors Service Award - YouTube

Credit: The Gary Sinise Foundation

The Foundation creates unique programs specifically designed to educate, inspire, entertain, and strengthen communities.

gary sinise hands out gifts

Credit: The Gary Sinise Foundation

From December 2 through December 6, the Gary Sinise Foundation hosted 700 families–more than 1,800 children and spouses or guardians of fallen United States military heroes during the foundation’s Snowball Express “Disney in December” Event.

The event included a magical five-day trip to the Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, Florida, complete with round-trip airfare courtesy of American Airlines, a sponsor of the event. Upon their arrival at the airport, families were warmly welcomed by American Airlines volunteer personnel through brightly decorated terminals and onto decorated airplanes.

gary sinise trip to disney world

Credit: The Gary Sinise Foundation

Once the group arrived at Orlando International Airport, they were then greeted by Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse before heading to Disney World.

SBE Photo 2: Mickey and Minnie

Credit: The Gary Sinise Foundation

“The Gary Sinise Foundation is so honored to uplift these families with our annual holiday trip by helping them during what is often the most difficult time of year,” the foundation tweeted.

The annual Snowball Express event at Disney World began in 2018, but beginning in 2020, the event had to be postponed due to concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, this year’s event is the first time the Sinise Foundation has been able to return to the parks with a group of family members of fallen heroes.
“Over the course of five days, these deserving families were given the opportunity to make new memories, experience the magic of Disney World,” reads a post on the foundation’s website, “and connect with the only people who truly understand the healing journey they are on–each other.”
As part of the event last week, which doubled as a healing retreat for those who attended, a special remembrance garden was created. Hundreds of American flags were on display, each one representing a hero lost by someone on the retreat.
gary sinise remembrance garden

Family members embrace at the Remembrance Garden/Credit: The Gary Sinise Foundation

“It’s so important because it gives us an opportunity for us to show them they are not forgotten,” Executive Director of the Gary Sinise Foundation Donna Palmer said. “It gives them that special sacred place to remember, but then they can take that special memory and go into the park.”
On Tuesday, December 5, families also got to participate in the Walk of Gratitude at Magic Kingdom. Before the walk, family members wrote personal messages to their fallen heroes on scrolls. Cast members then lined Main Street, U.S.A., and greeted survivor families with a hero’s welcome as they walked toward Cinderella Castle.
main street usa walk at disney world

“Walk of Gratitude” at Magic Kingdom/Credit: The Gary Sinise Foundation

Afterward, the children of those fallen heroes rang bells to symbolize the sending of their messages to those they have lost.
walk on main street at disney world

“Walk of Gratitude” at Magic Kingdom/Credit: The Gary Sinise Foundation

“We attended in 2019, the year of our loss,” said Rachel Lavana Alquaddomi in a testimonial on the Sinise Foundation website. “I cannot express what an impact this made on the kids. Loss is an incredibly isolating experience, but Snowball Express gave us a sense of community and hope. It helped us build new relationships with other survivor families who continue to be cherished friends. We are so grateful, and the kids had a fantastic time and still talk about it often!”
SBE 2019 Rachel Lavana Alquaddomi

Credit: The Gary Sinise Foundation

The unique programs and events sponsored by The Gary Sinise Foundation wouldn’t be possible without the generosity of donors and volunteers. If you are interested in being a part of the effort at the foundation, visit their website by clicking here.

About Becky Burkett

Becky's from the Lone Star State and has been writing since she was 10 and encountered her first Disney Park when she was 11. It was love at first Main Street Electrical Parade. Joy is blank lined journals, 0.7 mm pens, and all things Walt, Woody and Buzz, PIXAR, Imagineering, Sleeping Beauty (make it blue!), Disney Parks history and EPCOT. At Disney World, you'll find her croonin' with the birdies at the Enchanted Tiki Room or hangin' with Woody and the gang at Toy Story Land. If you can dream, you really can do it!